1957By Gerard J, DeGroot34 .\MER1CAN HISTORY DECEMBER 2007
ack in October 1957, Little Richard was doing a concert tour inAustralia. While performing on the Sydney quayside, he claimed hesightedSputnik,launched a few days earlier, passing overhead. For tbesinger, the satellite was proof positive that the end of the world wasnigh. "We're all going to die," he muttered. To the astonishment of hisadoring fans, he stripped off his expensive jewelry and threw it into theharbor. He then marched off the stage, renounced rock and roll anddeclared that he would ask God for guidance. After much persuasion,he agreed to continue his tour, but refused to play rock. Instead of"Long Tall Sally," audiences were treated to melancholic gospel songsand long passages from the Bible, read with portentous solemnity.Little Richard's reaction seems bizarre, but only when viewed trom the vantage point of 50years later. At the time, his behavior was simply one manifestation of a widespread tendencyamong Americans to panic. Thanks to comic books and science fiction films, many had cometo believe that nothing nice exists in outer space.Sputnikmeant that these fears were suddenlygrafted onto latent anti-Communist paranoia. America's concerns about Communist infiltrationhad always been tempered by an assumption of technological superiorit}'.Sputnikdestroyed that.Whereas before outer space monsters had implied green, lizard-tongued aliens armed with deathrays,the new fiends were fiir-coated, vodka-drinking Russians.Granted, not everyone panicked, or at least not immediately. Rocket enthusiasts of all ages putaside Cold War suspicions to celebrate a magnificent technological feat. Equally excited wereAmerican entrepreneurs who immediately looked for ways to turn space age wizardry into cold,hard cash. Within days, one confectioner came out with a Sputnik lollipop. Restaurants servedSputnik doughnuts and Sputnik burgers—the latter with an orbiting pickle suspended on atoothpick. In anticipation of Christmas, a toy manufacturer took an ordinary scooter and calledit a "pednik." One clever designer came up with a spherical container that held ice cream. Oneantenna went into a Coke bottle and the otber served as a straw. Presto, a Sputnik ice cream float.There was also a Sputnik lamp and a fly killer shaped like the satellite, not to mention theinevitable Sputnik dance and hairstyle, both suitably otherworldly.All those clever marketing spin-offs were an attempt to ward off the demons of despair—rather like whistling in a graveyard. Ice cream floats and Sputnik burgers could not, however,erase feelings of inferiority and fear. Americans struggled to make sense of the space age, andespecially ofthe fact that the Russians had inaugurated it. The Soviets, after all, were not sup-posed to be good at technology.